Breast cancer is the most frequent cancer among women and the second most common cancer overall. The month of October is a time to remind women to get screened, in hopes that by doing so, early detection will yield more positive results in the fight against breast cancer.
What is breast cancer?
Cancer develops when changes, called mutations, occur in the genes that regulate cell growth. These mutations allow cells to divide and multiply uncontrollably, creating a mass of tissue called a tumor.
Cancers are named after the area in the body where they originate. Breast cancer starts in the breast tissue. Like other cancers, breast cancer can invade and grow in the tissue surrounding the breast. It can also move to other parts of the body and form new tumors, a process called metastasis.
What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
Each woman must know how her breasts normally look and feel so that she can identify any changes that may occur. While it’s important to know what to look for, a woman should have regular mammograms and clinical breast exams, as these tests can help detect breast cancer even before symptoms appear.
Signs of breast cancer may include
- A lump in the breast or armpit
- Swelling or thickening of all or part of the breast
- Lumpiness or irritation of the breast skin
- Localized and persistent pain in the breast
- Redness, scaling, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk)
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
Who gets this type of cancer?
A risk factor for breast cancer is anything that increases the risk of developing breast cancer. But having one or more risk factors for breast cancer does not necessarily mean you will develop it. Many women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors other than being a woman.
The following factors are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer:
- Being a woman. Females are much more likely than males to develop breast cancer.
- Increasing age. Breast cancer risk increases with age.
- A personal history of breast cancer. If you ever had breast cancer in one breast, you are at increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
- A family history of breast cancer. If your mother, sister, or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, mostly at a young age, you have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. Certain genetic mutations which increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children.
- Radiation exposure. If you received radiation therapy to your chest as a child or young adult, your risk of breast cancer is increased.
- Obesity. Obesity raises your risk of breast cancer.
- Starting menopause at a later age. If you entered menopause at a later age, you are more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child past age 30 may be at increased risk of breast cancer.
- Never having been pregnant. Women who have never had a baby have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who have had one or more pregnancies.
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women taking hormone therapy drugs that combine estrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have a higher risk of breast cancer.
- Alcohol intake. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
During your regular physical exam, your doctor will take a personal and family medical history. He or she will also perform and/or order one or more of the following tests:
- Breast Examination: During the breast examination, the doctor will carefully palpate the lump and surrounding tissue. Breast cancer is usually different (in size, texture, and movement) from benign lumps.
- Digital Mammogram: An x-ray examination of the breast can give important information about a breast lump. It is an x-ray image of the breast that is digitally recorded in a computer rather than on film.
- Ultrasonography: This test uses sound waves to detect the nature of a breast lump – whether it is a fluid-filled cyst (not cancerous) or a solid mass (which may or may not be cancerous). It can be done at the same time as the mammogram.
Depending on the results of these tests, your doctor may or may not order a biopsy to remove a sample of cells or tissue from the breast mass.
How is breast cancer treated?
The stage of your breast cancer, how far it has spread and the size of the tumor play an important role in determining the type of treatment you will need.
To begin, your doctor will determine the size, stage, and grade of your cancer. Then you can discuss your treatment options.
The most common treatment for breast cancer is surgery. Many people receive additional treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation, or hormone therapy.
Breast-conserving surgery consists of removing the cancerous part of the breast and an area of normal tissue surrounding cancer while attempting to preserve the normal appearance of the breast. This procedure is often called a lumpectomy, also called a partial mastectomy. Most women who have a small tumor at an early stage are excellent candidates for this approach.
Mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) is also an option. In this procedure, the surgeon removes an entire breast. In the case of a double mastectomy, both breasts are removed.
2- Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy involves using powerful beams of radiation to target and kill cancer cells. Most radiation therapies use external beam radiation. This technique uses a large machine located outside the body.
Advances in cancer treatment have also allowed doctors to irradiate cancer from inside the body. This type of radiation therapy is called brachytherapy.
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment used to kill cancer cells. Some people may receive chemotherapy alone, but this type of treatment is often combined with other treatments, including surgery.
In certain cases, doctors prefer to administer chemotherapy to patients before surgery. The hope is that the treatment will shrink the tumor and the surgery will not be as invasive.
4- Hormone therapy
If your type of breast cancer is hormone-sensitive, your doctor may put you on hormone therapy. The two female hormones estrogen and progesterone can stimulate the growth of breast cancer tumors.
Hormone therapy works by blocking your body’s production of these hormones or by blocking the hormone receptors on cancer cells. This can help slow down and eventually stop the growth of your cancer.
Some treatments are designed to attack specific abnormalities or mutations in cancer cells.
For example, Herceptin (trastuzumab) can block your body’s production of the HER2 protein. HER2 helps breast cancer cells grow, so taking a drug to slow down the production of this protein can help slow the growth of cancer.
How can I protect myself from this type of cancer?
Although there are risk factors that you cannot control, a healthy lifestyle, regular screenings, and all the preventive measures recommended by your doctor can help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
1- Lifestyle factors
Lifestyle factors can affect your risk of breast cancer.
As mentioned above, women who are obese have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Thus, eating a nutrient-rich diet and exercising regularly as often as possible can help you lose weight and reduce your risk.
Alcohol abuse also increases your risk. This can include having more than two drinks a day or drinking too much alcohol.
2- Breast cancer screening
Regular mammograms do not prevent breast cancer, but they can help reduce the chances of it going undetected.
The American Cancer Society recommends a baseline mammogram at age 35 and then a screening mammogram every year starting at age 40. Mammograms are an important part of your medical record.
3- Breast examination
Have your breasts examined by a health care professional at least once every three years after age 20, and every year after age 40. Clinical breast exams can detect lumps that would not be visible on a mammogram.